Much ado over a few valves…

My previous post on Kudankulam got some online and offline feedback. I partly invited criticism with my screwup in claiming that the reports of ZiO-Podolsk corruption were from a single source, a Norwegian NGO (who quoted a Russian agency report that I couldn’t find). I was quickly alerted to the Russian original, which is more credible than a Norwegian NGO. But it is still a single source, which is mystifying to me. A report that is not followed up is like an experiment that is not repeated. Initial media reports are often erroneous and a full picture appears only later. What is the full picture here and why has nobody reported on it? It is mystifying to me, but I don’t buy the conspiracy theory that there is a deliberate international media blackout on this.

Be that as it may, the anti-nuclear activists are trying to link that story to reports that four valves in Kudankulam were found to be defective. The facts that these are part of additional safety features requested by the Indian side, that they were detected in time, that AERB clearance will only be given after full testing, are all unimportant, it seems.

It is good to see the minute concern exhibited over four defective valves in an installation the size of Kudankulam. Can we have the same concern for non-nuclear installations all over the country? Just in the past one month we have seen a fertilizer factory explosion in Texas and a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, both with heavy loss of life. Here in India we have seen numerous disasters over the years, from Bhopal to the Uphaar cinema fire to the Kumbakonam school tragedy to the Mantralaya fire to numerous firework accidents in Sivakasi, and that doesn’t include buses plunging into ravines, trains ramming vehicles at unmanned crossings, brake failures in poorly maintained public buses, and so on. If an iota of the concern for detail exhibited in Kudankulam (both by the NPCIL and by the protestors) were applied elsewhere, we could save thousands of lives a year.

Anti-nuclear motto: Protest, don’t verify?

UPDATE 06 May 2013: The Supreme Court has rejected the stay petition, after hearing arguments and debating for months (the ruling was originally expected in January). Presumably the Russian story matter, below, was brought up too [edit: it wasn’t brought up in the hearings, but a petition was filed in April; I am not sure whether it was admitted but the court was certainly aware of this concern).. They have directed the AERB and NPCIL to ensure safety, but they did not need such directions: India’s nuclear safety record is among the best in the world. Will this bring the matter to rest? I’m not holding my breath…

ANOTHER UPDATE 06 May 2013: I also got an objection to the claim that Gopalakrishnan “put words into” M R Srinivasan’s mouth. Gopalakrishnan in fact quotes Srinivasan, as quoted by the TOI, leaving out a crucial clause. Srinivasan originally said: “We sought an additional safety mechanism well before the Fukushima disaster…” (my emphasis) but Gopalakrishnan left out the last five words in his quote, leaving the deliberate impression that this has something to do with the ZiO-Podolsk case. And I wonder why Gopalakrishnan, a former AERB chairman, couldn’t just ring up Srinivasan and get an original quote for his article.

UPDATE — after I wrote the following, the scientist that I mention mailed me the links to the Russian agency story. Google translate links: 1, 2. So there really was a story in the Russian agency, and some, at least, of the Indian media (as well as the scientist in question) may well have verified it, so I take back those remarks. But the lack of follow-up, in the Russian media itself and in international media, is puzzling. How important was this fraud to the safety of nuclear reactors, and is the investigation ongoing or dropped?

I have been puzzled by a spate of recent articles claiming that the procurement director of ZiO-Podolsk, nuclear supplier, was arrested for procuring substandard steel and pocketing the difference. Here, for example, is former AERB chairman A. Gopalakrishnan demanding that the safety of the Kudankulam plant be audited. A Google search for ZiO-Podolsk throws up dozens of articles on sites like dianuke and countercurrents, making the same claim.

All of these (including Gopalakrishnan’s opinion piece) refer ultimately to one article from February 2012, from the website of a Norwegian NGO called Bellona. The article claims that the news first appeared in Russia’s official news agency Rosbalt. But they provide no link (surely it must exist, and Google Translate is adequate for these tasks) [update – see update on top], and it has not appeared in any other international media. Some, like activist Nityanand Jayaraman in Tehelka, call it a “curious” “media silence” implying some sort of conspiracy. But if there were any truth in it, it would have been of front-page importance internationally, especially in a world still worrying about Fukushima.

[update — I retract the insinuations in this paragraph and the following one, but retain the text here for the record; see update on top] The lack of any supporting evidence has not stopped Indian activists parroting this claim without verification, and many in the media lapping it up. But I was disappointed to receive a mail today from a scientist requesting that I sign a petition, based on this claim, that Kudankulam’s safety be reviewed. Scientists and journalists have this in common: it is their professional duty to verify claims before repeating them. In both cases, verification is done by a few reputable individuals and published in respected venues, and then the rest of the community accepts the claims until proven otherwise. How can a scientist accept a claim that only ever appeared in one NGO’s website, over a year ago, but has suddenly gone viral over the past three months?

Does anyone remember the hoax about alleged Nazi war criminal Johann Bach, that took in large parts of the Indian media? The ZiO-Podolsk story may not be a hoax, but it does demonstrate the media’s propensity to publish anything they find on the interwebs without the least effort to verify where it came from.

Gopalakrishnan’s article is disappointing in many other ways. He puts words into the mouths of various atomic energy officials, including former chairman M R Srinivasan, but never provides a link or reference, and peppers his article with weasel-words. He insinuates that problems with valves are behind the delay in operationalising Kudankulam, and that these problems are linked with the alleged ZiO-Podolsk scandal. But it is well-known that the Supreme Court’s ruling on a stay petition has been awaited for months (some reports say it will arrive tomorrow). Why look for conspiracies when there are obvious explanations? Indeed, isn’t it just a little dubious to first file a petition demanding a stay, and then say that there is something suspicious about the delay?

The anti-Kudankulam agitation reveals a lot about our country, most of it not complimentary.

How not to modernise a university: Dinesh Singh’s ham-handed efforts at reform

Below is a note from the St Stephen’s College Physics Department, that I’m sharing with permission.

(posted by Abhinav Gupta, Physics Department, St Stephen’s College, on Facebook; reproduced with permission)

The Four Year Programme – a Physics Department’s perspective

Delhi University’s proposed four-year undergraduate programme – to begin in July 2013– has been much in the news. It has been opposed by members of the teaching community for various reasons – need, procedure, infrastructure, cost, inadequacy, etc –, many of which are indeed good enough to give one pause. But suppose that one accepts, for the sake of argument, that a four-year undergraduate programme is desirable. One might then ask: Is this the kind of four-year programme we want? Is it even the four-year programme that its fond founders wanted? The answers appear to be: no and no.

The advertised reasons for introducing a four-year undergraduate programme were that it would be more flexible, more inter-disciplinary, and more in tune with undergraduate programmes across the world. The programme that is now being pushed through is in fact extraordinarily inflexible, inter-disciplinary in a rather strange way, and quite out of tune with four-year programmes anywhere in the world.

Flexibility and Inter-disciplinarity

The inflexibility of programme appears at various stages. A student enters the programme having already chosen his major discipline (DC1) and does not have the option to change at any stage. The four-year bachelor’s-degree programmes in the US – presumably the inspiration for Delhi University – allow students to make an informed choice of major after appropriate sampling. The same principle is followed in a more limited sense in the four-year BS at IISc-Bangalore and the integrated five-year BSc-MSc at the various IISERs, where students take common courses over a broad spectrum of disciplines – all in science – in the first two years, and then choose a major. (There exists no comparable programmes in the arts in India.) In DU’s programme, students will indeed get a broad exposure in the first two years, since all students will do the same 11 mandatory foundation courses (FCs); however, they will not be able to use this exposure to make an informed choice of major (DC1), since this choice will already have been made at the time of entry. Furthermore, the FCs Delhi University has decided upon are not exactly the kind of courses that would help a student to discover his abilities and inclinations effectively enough to make a choice of discipline. Given that the second discipline (DC2) and the Applied Courses (ACs) offer the only real flexibility available in the four-year programme, it would have made sense to design the FCs in a manner that permitted intelligent choice. Even if we take it as given that the core discipline is chosen at the time of admission, the sheer volume of the Foundation Courses overwhelms the core courses in the first year.

An even stranger and more incomprehensible inflexibility appears later in the programme: all students who have chosen physics, for example, as DC1, must do exactly the same courses for all four years. At no time are there any optional courses available – at least there are none in the proposed physics syllabus. To appreciate how strange this is, one must understand that a student will generally discover after two years of college-level physics whether his inclinations and abilities lie in experimental or theoretical physics, whether he is interested in astrophysics or biophysics. Any sensible programme – especially one that advertises itself as flexible – will therefore have a range of optional courses available to its students in the later years. This is something that could have been fairly easily implemented even within the present scheme, and in fact the first draft of the physics syllabus assumed that such choices would be available in the fourth year – but apparently the University shot down all options.

Abolishing the Pass Degree Programmes

Delhi University at the moment offers two kinds of degrees: pass (called BSc Programme and BA Programme) and honours. The vast majority of students are enrolled in the pass degree programmes, which are designed to give their students exposure to a range of subjects without specialization in any one. The honours programmes on the other hand, require students to specialize in one subject, and are designed for academic pursuits. In the four-year programme, even those who leave after three years with a non-honours degree will essentially follow an honours-like track, in that they will specialize in one course (DC1).With the merging of the honours and pass tracks it may be very difficult for Delhi University to maintain the standard of the syllabi and examinations. (There is a recent precedent for this. A few years ago, when BSc General was changed to BSc Programme, the syllabus proposed for the new Programme was such that a very large number of students failed the examinations in the first year. With a couple of years the standard was substantially lowered to allow students to pass.). There is real apprehension that the University will eventually dumb down the the syllabus to simply pass more students.

The number of students who benefit from a high-level programme may be very small in number, but it is on their training and success that the reputation of a university depends. Delhi University would be very much the poorer if these students decided to go elsewhere. At the same time, the interests of those who want a broad but adequate exposure to several areas will also not be served in the four-year degree programme (even if exited after three years).

Exit Options

The four-degree programme will allow a student to exit after two years with an Associate Baccalaureate degree, after three years with a Baccalaureate degree, and after four years with a Baccalaureate with Honours or a BTech. The first option is a rather strange one. A student who leaves after two years will evidently not be considered a “graduate” for the purposes of employment or admission to any Master’s (or MBA!) programme. In the Indian context it is not clear what the purpose of the two-year “degree” is.

The same lack of clarity is evident in the status of a student who graduates with a four-year honours degree. Will there be a one-year MSc degree available for such students? – and not just at Delhi University but all over the country? (And will there also be a two-year MSc available for students from other universities, and for those who exit the four-year programme after three years?) If most MSc programmes in India (e.g. the much-sought-after MSc programmes at the IITs) continue to be two years long, what incentive will the best DU students have to stay on for the fourth year? Will students seeking admission into research institutes like TIFR and IISc be admitted to the integrated MSc-PhD programme meant for graduates, or directly into the PhD programme meant for Master’s degree holders? At the moment, the status of the Delhi University M.Sc program itself is not clear. With the best Masters and Integrated PhD programmes in India not requiring an Honours degree as a prerequisite (just a three year science degree), the best students will try to get admission to these places after three years.

The point really is not the details but this – when India’s biggest and most important public university makes as large a change as the one proposed, it cannot do so in isolation. Delhi University is part of a country-wide system, within which it must be accommodated. A change from a three-year to a four-year degree is not in itself unthinkable, intrinsically unacceptable, or necessarily inferior to a three-year programme. But such an enormous change requires time – time for the university concerned to carefully study pre-existing programmes of this kind and ask how they might be adapted to its needs; time to work out how the programme fits into the larger Indian academic scene; time to work out the ramifications for students and faculty; and time, also, to consult all interested parties and carry them along. The manic haste with which the change is being effected and the abandonment of all protocol and thoughtfulness are deeply distressing to all those of us who must ultimately make real what has been dreamt up.

The views expressed here are the personal views of all permanent faculty members of The Physics Department, St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. These do not necessarily represent the views of St. Stephen’s College.

Now, my thoughts.

I studied in Delhi University, and, in fact, grew up on its campus. I have an attachment to the place (though I haven’t visited for years), a respect for its history and its continuing achievements, and, I believe, a realistic opinion of where it stands in India and in the world. Recently the university has been in the news for its drastic overhaul of the undergraduate programme, across all disciplines, converting it to an allegedly more flexible 4-year programme with a choice of courses and exit options at years 2, 3 and 4. It sounds very good on paper, and got a lot of positive media coverage at the time, but it is clear that many of those who are in charge of implementing it — the teachers — were not happy.

Early criticisms focused on the haste and the authoritarian way in which the changes were implemented. It was easy to see these criticisms as obstructionist, put forward by people unwilling to change. But many of the critics are highly respected and committed teachers and researchers. Now that the new syllabus has been finalised, with minimal interaction, it seems clear just how bad it really is.

Let me focus on science here since that is my area. Contrary to some earlier claims, the 4-year bachelor’s programme is not the first of its kind in India: as the St Stephen’s note observes, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, started one two years ago. And the idea of making a programme flexible and providing a “foundation” across disciplines was already pioneered by the IISERs, in their integrated B.Sc./M.Sc programme. What Dinesh Singh, the vice chancellor of Delhi University, has done is to reject all this experience from other institutions to design an utterly rigid programme, with no flexibility in choosing majors or even in taking optional courses, that seems to be in no way an improvement on what exists currently.

Disclosure: I knew Dinesh Singh when I was a student at St Stephen’s. I was directed to him when I had a question about measures and uncountability (he pointed out where I was wrong, but I now realise that there are deeper issues here that have caused controversy since the early 20th century). He seemed an enthusiastic pedagogue committed to the cause of undergraduate education. A little later, he started an outfit called the Mathematical Sciences Foundation, which was a good idea and generated much enthusiasm, but did not stay free of controversy. What I was disappointed by was that he made no effort to tie up with any Indian institution, but had a partnership with the University of Houston instead whereby students, after studying one year at his Foundation, would go to Houston for a degree programme. There were several corporate supporters, such as ICICI Bank and NASSCOM, but the one Indian academic interaction the foundation had, with St Stephen’s College (which originally housed the Foundation), collapsed acrimoniously.(*) Singh’s position, as I understood it (I may be wrong), seemed to be that all Indian institutions are irredeemably bureaucratic and inflexible. It is strange that such a man chose to become vice-chancellor of one of the largest Indian universities (he earlier headed the south campus of Delhi University). But, having taken up that job, it appears that he did not develop any new respect for his academic colleagues at the University. Worse, he did not learn from the best practices at universities elsewhere in the world. The result, as the document from St Stephen’s describes, is a disaster in the making. The result fails to take account of the needs of Delhi University students, who come from very diverse backgrounds; it fails to learn from international experience or make use of best international practices; it completely ignores prior Indian experience in flexible teaching; it has alienated the majority of the teachers, who are the ones meant to implement the programme; and, despite taking a year longer than the current honours programmes, it does not provide any additional educational value. (It does, however, make it easier to apply for master’s programmes in the USA, which require four years of undergraduate education.)

All I can say is, I am glad I am not looking to do an undergraduate degree in Delhi today.

(*)I can’t help contrasting the Mathematical Sciences Foundation with another institution that started around the same time with the same goal of fostering undergraduate mathematical education, with private-sector support. Started in 1989 as part of the SPIC Science Foundation, and autonomous since 1996, the Chennai Mathematical Institute has successfully run its own degree programme, originally in association with Bhoj Open University, and now independently as a deemed university. It maintains active links with several Indian academic institutions including mine. But the key point, it seems to me, is that CMI did not start with the assumption that existing institutions in India were atrociously bad and to be steered clear from. A man who is vice-chancellor of a university as large, diverse, prestigious and historically important as Delhi University needs to have a proven record of being able to work with others respectfully. Dinesh Singh’s record was quite the opposite.

UPDATE 04/05/13: Added a disclaimer to the physics department note, on request.